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DANUM
The Valley Where Time Stood Still

Text and photography by Andrea & Antonella Ferrari

 

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Danum Valley Borneo Indonesia
Primary dipterocarp rainforest landscape, Danum Valley, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia Image #: 126025

A Pristine, Virgin Primary Rainforest

The crown jewel of untouched nature of Borneo, the legendary Danum Valley Conservation Area is the largest protected lowland dipterocarp primary forest in Sabah, Malaysia. This pristine, untouched area of extraordinary beauty holds an unique status among other protected areas: before it became a conservation area there were no human settlements within the area, meaning that hunting, logging and other human interference was non-existent. This makes the area almost unique among other protected areas in Sabah – and this shows at first glance, both in the number of animal sightings and in the sheer scope of its water-soaked, luxuriant rainforest. Danum Valley covers an area of 438 square kilometres and is currently managed by the Yayasan Sabah Foundation, created in 1966 for conservation, research, education and physical training purposes. The nearest town, Lahad Datu – a quiet, smallish settlement at the crossroads between Sandakan and Tawau, which can be easily reached by car or twin-engine turboprop flight from both centers - is about 82 km away (about a 2 hours drive by four-wheel drive vehicles on mainly logging, corduroy, unpaved roads in good weather, but be prepared for a much longer and very muddy Camel Trophy-style slog if it has been raining!). Given its formidable isolation and impenetrable rainforest cover, accomodation in the area is presently limited to two basic choices: the Danum Valley Field Centre is a research establishment reserved for scientists and education purposes only, while the rather splendid (and understandably rather expensive) Borneo Rainforest Lodge has been created – with conservation and low-environmental impact in mind - for tourists to stay. From its beautiful, well-appointed chalets visitors can take long, guided walks through lowland rainforest trails, while other activities include night walks (serious wildlife photographers should not miss these) and night drives (avoid these, which are crowded, noisy and not really suited to the local environment – rainforests are made for walking).

Unrivalled Fauna and Flora

Danum Valley is a world-famous destination for passionate birdwatchers, but its undisturbed, virgin and thick lowland primary rainforest (more than 200 plant species per hectare!) is home to many other animals, including several large mammals (120 species), many beautiful reptiles (72 species) and amphibians (56 species) and countless numbers of exceptionally attractive insects. Mammals regularly sighted include wild Orangutans, gibbons, leaf monkeys, long-tailed and pig-tail macaques, wild bearded pigs, mouse deer and sambar deer – lucky visitors may also occasionally encounter several species of wild cats (including the “dream date” of South-East Asian rainforests, the strikingly beautiful and incredibly elusive Clouded Leopard), the shy Bornean Pygmy elephant– which is much more easily observed however along the Kinabatangan river basin in the Sukau area - and even Malay Sun bears or Sumatran rhinos (but do not count on the latter!). Birds commonly observed number several species of Hornbills (including Rhinoceros and Helmeted), bee-eaters, kingfishers, warblers, several species of forest raptors and many others too numerous (a total of 340 species) to mention here, while among the many reptile and amphibian species encountered the impressive Reticulate python, at least two different species of Pit viper, the strikingly marked Paradise snake, the colorful Forest dragon lizard and the amazingly well-camouflaged Borneo horned frog all deserve to be mentioned. A lot of first-time visitors to rainforests spend most of their time looking in the distance and hoping for the large animals, but the most interesting and fascinating denizens of this mysteriously beautiful environment are in fact the small, secretive, camouflaged inhabitants of the forest floor and canopy: diminutive reptiles, amphibians and most often strange insects of all shapes and sizes, which are usually quite hard to spot and which are most easily observed during the guided night walks.

The Joys and Sorrows of Rainforest Trekking

Long day and night walks are the best options to fully appreciate the Danum Valley rainforest environment. Despite the apparent drawbacks and discomforts – waking up at 5am, slogging in the mud for hours on end, being literally drenched in sweat and very often even rainfall, dealing with the occasional but messy leech bite – this is really the only sensible way to enjoy the place and fully savour the wonders it offers. Get yourself a private guide from the Borneo Rainforest Lodge if at all possible – as everywhere else it will make the experience completely different – and bring cotton clothes only (no artificial fibers!), with long trousers, long thick socks to tuck them into, and long-sleeved shirts. Be aware that you’ll be drenched most of time – in your own sweat and/or rainfall – so it makes no sense trying to keep dry at all costs with nylon ponchos or raincoats, which also rapidly become unbearingly suffocating in the heat. Most important of all, take a pair of good hiking ankle boots along – this is where synthetic, breathable fabrics such as Cordura are strongly recommended, since they’ll be constantly soaked, and boots in natural materials such as leather or canvas would rapidly rot or mould, often in a single night’s time. A sun hat and a rainproof torch will be important items to take along too. Since we’re on the subject, do not let the local all-pervasive obsession and paranoia with leeches scare you – these fascinating, small rubbery creatures (did you know they can survive with a single feeding a year if needed?) are completely harmless and do not transmit any diseases. If you get bitten by one you’ll feel no pain – maybe a little itching later on – but you’ll certainly bleed freely and massively for quite a few hours, as their saliva contains both an efficient anesthetic and a powerful anticoagulant. The blood staining and trickling can look scary to the uninitiated, but it’s no big deal really – after a day’s trekking in the rainforest you’d have to thoroughly wash your soiled clothes anyway! On the good side, Danum Valley is almost completely mosquito-free, and that is really important since most serious tropical diseases – such as malaria or dengue - are transmitted via the bite of these obnoxious little winged pests.

A Uniquely Impressive Environment

Despite our lifelong experience in rainforests exploration and photography worldwide, we could not help being deeply impressed and in fact even awed by the beauty, richness and sheer isolation of Danum Valley. This is a virgin, primordial, occasionally demanding environment of steaming lush vegetation and glutinous ankle-deep mud, of steep ravines and gurgling clear forest brooks, of gigantic buttress trees and coiled, climbing lianas, perennially bathed in oppressive heat and humidity. Incredibly violent downpours are sudden and frequent, and even when bathed in searing sunshine the whole environment is perennially immersed in a prehistoric, Jurassic Park-like atmosphere. Animal sightings are surprisingly frequent and near for a rainforest habitat, and photographic opportunities for professionals and serious amateurs are simply enormous. We spent a whole week at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, and we feel we have barely scratched the surface – every few steps along the forest trails a new fascinating subject would be sighted, and it would not be uncommon for us to walk a few hundred meters only in more than three hours, especially at night. To the attentive, careful observer and thanks to its own specific nature, the Danum Valley environment offers a unique chance – the possibility not only to sight wild animals, but to pause at length and leisure and watch them actually behave – feed, hunt, mate. This is a rare and precious gift, one which has to be treasured for long, and Danum offers it generously to those willing to listen to the sounds of the forests or put their eyesight to good use. Add to this the deeply moving, emotional impact of the untouched rainforest habitat and the creature comforts offered at the end of a tiring day by the beautiful Borneo Rainforest Lodge – whoever thought of those open-air bathtubs on the wooden chalet balconies facing the rainforest and the river is a genius – and you will understand why we have fallen in love with Danum Valley, and why we cannot wait to go back there - this time for a longer stay!